George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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suffered in that vehicle! Would that I could have performed the
operation recommended by the conductor - a man with a gash across his
face when he laughed - to put my toes in my pocket, or go and dispose of
my troubles at Mark Lane.

It was of no use to try: every one who came in or went out of that 'bus,
either trod upon or poked my worst corn with stick or umbrella, and then
in the height of my anguish, when my countenance was distorted with
pain, a stout, wheezing old lady opposite must "Drat my imperance," and
want to know whether I meant to insult her.

I hobbled out of the place of torture as quickly as I could, and stepped
into one of those mud trimmings the scavengers delight in leaving by our
pavements, covering the glossy leather with the foul refuse, so that,
naturally particular about my boots, I was reduced to the extremity of
having a polish laid on by one of those young scarlet rascals, who kneel
at the corners of the streets.

"Black yer boots, sir," cried first one and then another, but I could
not trust to the first I met with, for he looked too eager, the next too
slow, while the third seemed a doubtful character, so I waited till I
reached a fourth.

"Do you see that slight eminence, you dog?"

"Wot that knobble, sir," said the boy.

"That eminence, boy," I said, fiercely. "That covers a corn."

"All right, sir," said the boy, "I won't hurt it. I'll go a tip-toe
over him, you see if I don't. I often cleans boots for gents as has
corns, and I'm used to 'em, and - "

"Yah-h-h-h," I shrieked, for it was impossible to help it, and at the
same moment brought down my umbrella fiercely on the little scoundrel's
head. Fancy my feelings all you who suffer, for it must have been done
purposely; just as the young ruffian was grinding away with an
abomination of a hard brush - a very hard brush, so hard that there was
more wood than bristles - he looked up at me and grinned while I was
perspiring with fear and pain, and then with one furious stroke he
caught the edge of his brush right upon the apex of Mount Agony, causing
me to shriek, seize my half-cleaned boot with both hands, and dance
round upon one leg regardless of appearances, and to the extreme delight
of the collecting crowd.

"Don't you do that agen, now come," whimpered the boy, guarding his head
with both arms, and smearing his black countenance where a few tears
trickled down.

"You dog!" I shouted; "I'll - I'll - I'll - "

"Oh, ah! I dessay you will," whined the boy; "I never said nothin' to
you. Why don't you pull off your boots then, and not go a-knockin' me
about?"

Of course I hurried away with my boots half-cleaned, and so I have to
hurry through life - a miserable man, suffering unheard-of torment, but
with no one to pity me. Time back, people would ask what ailed me, but
now they "pooh, pooh" my troubles, since it is only my corns. I would
not care if people would tread upon me anywhere else, but they won't,
and I feel now reduced to my last hope.

Did not somebody once say, "Great oaks from little acorns grow - great
aches from little toe-corns grow"? How true - how telling! But there, I
give up, with the determination to bear my pains as I can, for I feel
assured that no one will sympathise with me who does not suffer from
corns.



CHAPTER THREE.

A GHASTLY DEED.

In Portsmouth harbour the good ship lay,
Her cruising ended for many a day,
And gathered on deck while receiving their pay,
The sailors most thickly were mustered.
The Jews on the wharves were all eagerly bent
On supplying poor Jack, while most likely by scent,
There were sharks by the score
On all parts of the shore.
Both he sharks and she sharks enough, ay and more,
To devour poor Jack,
When they made their attack,
And there on the land they all clustered.

Only think; from a cruise of four years returned,
And paid in clean money! No wonder it burned,
And Jack's canvass pockets were ready to give.
But, there: not so ready as Jack who would live
To the top of his income - the very main truck,
And when to the bottom of pocket, why luck,
Would never turn back
On poor happy-faced Jack,
Who never said die
In his life. And would try
To face any storm if his officers spoke,
Or the wildest of sights that the hurricane woke.

Now Dick Sprit was a sailor,
Tight and bold in a gale or
A storm. He would cheer in a fight,
'Mid the bullets' flight,
And sooner than hear any praise or flattery,
Would have run his head in a "Rooshun" battery.
Now Dick his pockets had ten times slapped,
His fingers snapped, and his trousers clapped;
He had thought of his home and the Christmas-time,
The long shore days 'mid the frosty rime.
He had gone on shore, run the gauntlet well,
'Scaped the Jews' oiled words and the grog-shops' smell.
The night was cold and the way was dark,
What mattered when Dick was free of his bark,
And with kit on his back, and stick in his fist,
His pay in his pocket, and cheek full of twist,
He started off for his six miles' tramp
To his native spot, spite of snow or damp.

Dick twisted his twist, and he flourished his stick,
And vowed he could fourteen footpads lick,
For in war or in peace, a scrimmage or spar
Is heartily welcome to every tar.
The night was cold and the way was dark,
And the town lights shone here and there like a spark,
As merrily on through the snow Dick tramped,
Though he certainly wished that the way were lamped.
But what was that when with four years' pay,
And a leave of absence for many a day,
With the old folks waiting their boy to meet,
Their sailor lad who, now fleet of feet,
Hurried along o'er the crunching snow,
As the thoughts of home made his heart to glow.

Some three miles past, and the sailor now
Paused by a hedge where the holly bough
Grew thick and dense, and though dim the night
There were memories many within that sight,
For the days of old came hurrying by,
And that Christmas past when he said good-bye;
While then came the thoughts of years soon sped,
Of the distant climes and the blood he'd shed,
Of the battles with storms in the ocean wild,
Of the torrid heat or the breezes mild.
But now once more he was nearing home
After his four years' tiring roam;
And with bounding heart how the night he blest,
And thought of the coming days of rest.

Some three miles past, when his blood was chilled
By a shriek which through every muscle thrilled;
He stood for a moment, and then could hear
The sounds of a struggle and trampling near;
Panting and sobs, as of mortal fight,
While from over a hedge gleamed rays of light.
Dick's feelings were wrought to the highest pitch;
His bundle he dropped, gave his slack a hitch,
Then tightening his grasp of his sapling oak,
With a bounding rush through the hedge he broke,
When hard by a cottage a lanthorn's light
Cast its flickering rays on a ghastly sight:
With gory features and blade in hand
Two ruffians stooped and their victim scanned;
As over the struggling form they leant,
Dick paused no more, but his sapling went,
Cut one - cut two on each villain's head,
Thud like the fall of a pestle of lead,
And then they fell with a deep drawn groan,
While Dick leaned forward on hearing a moan,
But suddenly turning, he ran like mad,
And breathlessly muttered, "'Twas really too bad.
Be blest if he ever did see such a rig
As to topper two lubbers for killing a pig!"

And Dick was right, for 'twas really no joke,
Though our sailor lad here had no "pig in a poke;"
But though courage should merit the best of our praise,
There's a certain fair maiden whose limpid eyes' rays
Should be shed on our mind when we think to engage,
And not in our hurry go blind in our rage;
Discretion should lead us, or else every whit,
We may turn out as blind as the sailor - Dick Sprit.



CHAPTER FOUR.

COME BACK.

"Ha-ha-ha-ha! ha-ha-ha!" laughed Shadrach - Shadrach Pratt, light porter
at Teman, Sundry, and Sope's, the wholesale and retail grocers in the
City. "Ha-ha-ha!" laughed Shadrach, stopping, with one foot on the wet
pavement and the other in the snowy slush of the kennel, to slap his
thigh, and say: "That's a good 'un, that is - `What do the Arabs of the
desert live on? the sand which is there.' That _is_ a good one, rale
grit. Ha-ha-ha!" laughed the little man. "I'll ask 'em that after
dinner to-morrow."

Who'd have thought, to see the little fellow go skipping along through
the wet, splashy snow, that there were holes in the sides of his boots,
and that one sole had given up the stitches that morning and gone off,
being not buried, but suffering the fiery ordeal of burning, curling
about upon its funereal pyre as though still alive? Who'd have thought
that he had had no dinner this Christmas-eve, and was now off,
post-haste, to his home in Bermondsey (_pronounced_ Bummonsey), to get
dinner and tea together - a hot meal of bloater and bread-and-butter -
with orders to be back in an hour at the latest? for it was busy tide
with the firm, and whatever Shadrach's duty may have been at other
times, he was heavy porter now decidedly.

Over the bridge, round the corner, down by Tooley Street warehouses,
famed for suffering from an ailment that must amongst buildings answer
to the Saint Anthony's fire of the human being; down past sacking,
sailcloth, and rope warehouses; and down past marine stores, and
miseries enough to give a man an ultramarine tint; and then home in the
pleasant and unsalubrious locality of Snow's Fields. Snow there was in
plenty - muddy, slushy snow; but the only field visible was a large field
for improvement; but then, as Shadrach said, "How handy for business!"

"Here's father!" was the cry, as the little man rushed in, hugged his
wife, and had his legs hugged at the same time; and then he was in the
warm place by the tea-tray, toasting his steaming boots, and watching
the water being poured into the hissing, hot earthen teapot.

"Now, then," said Mrs Pratt, "they've all had their teas; and you're
not to touch them, or give them a scrap. But have you had your dinner?"

"No," said Shadrach; "only stayed my stomach with half a pint of four
ale and a hot tater, at one; but I've brought a bloat - There, bless my
soul! I always did say the tail of your coat is not a safe place, and
if I ain't been setting upon it. What a good job it was a hard-roed
'un. Not hurt a bit. Who'll toast it?"

"Me - me - me!" chorussed some six or seven voices; and then the most
substantial-looking of the family was picked out, and she began toasting
till the fish began to curl its head and tail together, when the toaster
happening to turn her head to watch the distribution of "dog's bits" (ie
scraps of bread-and-butter), the bloater glided from the fork, and had
to be picked from the ashes and wiped.

But it was not so very gritty when done, and only made Shadrach think
about the Arabs and the sandwiches; though, after distributing so many
scraps, father's share of bloater, or grit, was not large; and then up
jumped the refreshed head of the family, and prepared for another start.

"'Tain't much, eighteen shillings a week, with a family, is it?" said
Shadrach, counting the money out in his wife's hand; "but, never mind,
there's lots worse off."

Mrs Pratt gave a shrug, as much as to say, "And lots better." But,
smiling again, she told what preparations had been made towards the next
day.

"There, I can't stop," said Shadrach; "you must do it all. Goose, you
know! Wait till it's quite late at Leadenhall, and then you'll get it
cheap. They can't sell them all out."

Mrs Pratt seemed to think that the goose would make a fearful hole in
eighteen shillings.

"There's coals, and grosheries, and vegetables, and bread, and butter;
and Ginger's boots are in a sad state, and - and - "

Certainly, Ginger's boots were in a sad state; but that was not of much
consequence, according to the Countess de Noailles; and if she advocated
bare feet amidst the aristocracy, she would have little pity for
Ginger - domus name of Mr Pratt's fourth son; for Shadrach was given to
nicknaming his children in accordance with the common objects of his
life: hence "Ginger," "Pepper," and "Spicy" were familiar terms for as
many children.

"But didn't I, eh? - the Christmas-box?" said Shadrach, pinching his chin
and looking innocent.

"Why, an old cheat!" cried Mrs Pratt, rushing to the door, and finding
a brown paper parcel resting behind the bulky umbrella upon her clogs;
and then, amidst a volley of cheers, bearing it to the table, which was
directly surrounded by chairs, climbed upon by an escalading party, and
it was only by dint of great presence of mind that Mrs Pratt saved the
brown paper citadel by hurriedly opening it, drawing out a pound of
raisins, and bribing the attacking party by giving them a plum apiece.

"Ta ta! I'm off," cried Shadrach, with glistening eyes, as he hurried
out and banged the door after him; but only to climb on to the
window-sill by means of holding on to the water-butt and nearly pulling
it over, when he could peep through a hole in the shutter and see his
wife hold up to the eyes of the exultant children the Christmas-box
regularly given by Teman, Sundry, and Sope to their _employes_. There
was a pound of raisins, and a pound of currants, and a ditto brown
sugar, a ditto lump, an ounce of spice, and a quarter of a pound of
peel; which was the last packet opened, when Shadrach leaped down and
hurried away through the dirty street.

But it was fine now overhead, and the stars began to twinkle brightly,
while the slushy roads were fast growing crisp; but not crisp enough to
prevent moisture from creeping through into Shadrach's boots.

"Because they live on the sand which - law!" cried Shadrach, "what a pity
we can't live on sand; what a lot the little 'uns do eat." And then he
stopped short for a minute to hear some street singers spoiling a carol,
and heard the reference to a babe in a manger; and then somehow, as he
trotted on, Shadrach could not see very clearly for thinking of two
lambs lost from his humble fold: one sleeping in its little grave with
the pure white snow covering its breast, and the bright stars like
angels' eyes watching it; and the other - "My poor, poor bairn!" sobbed
the little man, hurrying along; and then he was elbowing his way through
the throng on London Bridge, eager to get back in time.

"That's the worst of music," said Shadrach; "it allus upsets me. Ah!
yah! where are you running to, you young dog?" he cried to a boy who,
yelling out "I would I were a bird," blundered on to the little man's
favourite corn, and made him limp the rest of the way. "Not that sort
of music, confound him. Would he was a bird, indeed! Pity he ain't got
his neck wrung for him. Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Shadrach, taking a long
breath; "how bracing the wind is off the river! why, I do declare if I
couldn't over posts or anything to-night."

But there was no room for Shadrach to run or over posts, for the streets
were thronged with busy, hurrying people. The roadway was crowded too;
and everywhere it was plain to see that Christmas was here. It was
quite a blessing that some of the laden railway-vans did not break down,
for there would have been an absolute block; while, however it was
possible for all the presents on the way to get to their destination in
time, no one could say. Shops and people, ay, and weather too, all
spoke of Christmas: people looked hearty and genial; the shops looked
generous; while, though the weather felt cold, it was not a griping,
nipping cold, but a warm, dry cold that made the slush hard and firm,
and whispered of blazing fires and brave old English comforts.

God bless it! I love a Christmas-night; and, when I say a
Christmas-night, I mean any night in that jovial, happy tide, when men
sink the care and money-hunting to spread enjoyment around; when the
hand is open, either for a loving, brotherly pressure, or to aid a
poorer brother; or, better still, the fatherless and the widow. The
hand open? ay, and the heart too; for there seems to be breathed around
a spirit that softens the hard crust, so that it is open to any emotion,
be it such as begets mirth or tears. Who can say what it is? - that
loving, happy exhilaration that comes over us, and makes a man even kiss
his mother-in-law roundly. Why, it's the very time to get your salary
raised, is Christmas; and now the secret is out, I know I shall never be
forgiven by the heads of firms, who will be pounds out of pocket in
future. Who ever kicked a dog at Christmas; or prosecuted a thief? who
ever gave a beggar a penny without a blush for the smallness of the sum?
God bless it! though it comes so soon year after year to tell us how by
twelve months our span of life is shorter, and that we are nearer to the
long sleep. God bless it! and may its genial breath softly waft the
incense from every frugal hearth in our land, and rest in love where the
poor prepare their humble feast - ay, feast; for the simplest Christmas
dinner is a feast sprinkled by the torch of "Christmas Present."
There's something stirring in the very air, and the bells sound as they
do at no other time - they go home to the feelings, and call up from the
past the happy emotions planted in our hearts by God; but which a busy
life and rude contact with the world have caused to flee away and hide.
Back they come though, till, in the wild delight, eyes sparkle, cheeks
flush, and hands grasp hands in the fulness of heart to give a squeeze
often accompanied by a twinkling eye, where a tear will force its way.
Holy - sacred - are those reunions - those family meetings; and sad is it
when a seat becomes vacant; but is not that loss a bond to bind those
left the tighter, as wishing each other "a merry Christmas," as I do,
they say - "God bless it!"

Is there such a thing as a kind of magnetism in life by which spirit
whispers to spirit, and by some occult warning we know that those we
love are near? Or why should old Shadrach start and shiver as he passed
some one in the throng, and then mutter to himself very
thoughtfully - "Poor Polly!"

But it was a busy night, and what baskets did Shadrach lug about from
Gracechurch Street. East, west, north, and south - here, there, and
everywhere. Light porter, indeed! why, we won't insult him. But he
didn't mind, bless you, though he groaned and grunted under his load of
Christmas fruit; and there was something merry to say to every servant
lass who lightened his basket. Toast and ale, and egg-flip too, were
waiting when eleven o'clock struck, and though Mr Sope wanted to keep
open another hour, and Sundry said half an hour, old Teman, the head,
said "No! regular hours were the thing, and it was not fair to the young
men; and that if the Queen herself came from Buckingham Palace and
wanted a pound or two of fruit, she should not have it after the
shutters were up."

It would have done your heart good to have seen Shadrach rattle up those
shutters, as the boy down stairs held them up to the roller ready for
him to take.

"Ter-r-r-r-r-rattle" went the shutter as he dragged it over the roller,
and then "flip-flap-bang," it was in its place. "Ter-r-r-r-r-rattle"
went another, and nearly knocked an old gentleman over, but he only gave
a leap, skip, and a jump, and laughed. Two shutters up, and that big,
nodding Chinese mandarin with the bare stomach is covered up.
"Ter-r-r-r-rattle," and part of the big China punchbowl covered.
"Ter-r-r-r-rattle," and the whole of it covered. At it again - and the
squeezy almond-eyed lady hidden. At it again, nine shutters up. At it
again, skipping about as though he had never walked a step that day, but
just come fresh out of a lavender-and-clover bed ready for work, after
lying by for a rest. "Ter-r-r-r-rattle-bing-bang-bump." He did it that
time: knocked the policeman's helmet off, and sent it rolling along the
pavement.

"God bless my soul," said Shadrach, aghast at such an assault upon the
law of the land, but the policeman only laughed, and old Teman only
laughed, and called the bobby up to the door, while he fetched him a
glass of egg-flip himself, and wished him "A merry Christmas."

"Bang - slap - slip - flap - crack - jangle - jang - jink jonk - jank!" There
they are; the twelve shutters up, and both iron bars; screws rammed in,
and all tight; and Shadrach not a bit out of breath. Shop closed, and
no Queen to beg for a pound or two of fruit and test old Teman's
loyalty, as he ladled out the flip to his dozen men, when, wishing he
could have poured his share into his pocket, Shadrach said "Good-night!"
and was off homeward.

Plenty of people in the streets yet, but London Bridge seemed empty on
the west side when Shadrach reached it, and then stopped at the first
recess to look over at the rushing river. A bright, calm, light night,
with snow lying here and there in patches; here upon pier or barge,
there upon roof, and all glittering in the light of the full moon.
Lanthorns here and there where vessels were moored, and lamps in lines
upon the distant bridges. Frost laying hold of everything; but warmed
with exercise and the genial draught, Shadrach felt not the cold, but
knelt gazing over at the hurrying tide, and comparing it, perhaps, with
his life. But there was something else upon his mind, something that
kept bringing a shadow over him, and kept him from hurrying home.

At length he stepped down, and walked slowly across the bridge towards
the Borough; but then, with a strange, thoughtful, undecided step, he
crossed over and sauntered back towards the city again; and at last
stood leaning once more over the parapet, gazing at the glittering
river, till he started, for the clocks began to strike twelve. There
were the faint and distant tones, and the sharp, clear sounds of those
at hand, mingled with which came the heavy boom of Saint Paul's, till
the last stroke had fallen upon his ear, when with a half-shudder of
cold, Shadrach once more stepped down and commenced with some display of
vigour his homeward walk.

There was scarcely a soul to be seen now upon the bridge, but as he
reached the middle recess, Shadrach paused with a strange, tumultuous
beating at his heart, for there, in the same position as that in which
he had so lately leant, was the figure of a woman, evidently watching
the rushing river.

"Could she be meditating self-destruction?" Shadrach thought. "Could
he save her? But why should such thoughts come when he had often and
often seen women of her class in the same attitude?" he asked himself
the question, and could find no answer, except that it was so sad to see
a homeless outcast there upon a Christmas-eve.

"Poor thing - poor thing!" muttered Shadrach to himself; and then, going
up and speaking in a husky voice: "Had you not better go home, my girl?"

"What?" cried the girl, angrily; "home? There's no home for such as I."

"But the night - the cold - and - ah, my God! - Polly!"

Shadrach had advanced to the girl, and laid his hand upon her shoulder;
when, starting, she turned hastily round and confronted him beneath the
lamp; a mutual recognition took place, when, with a bitter cry, the girl
darted away, while her father staggered and fell, striking his head
violently against the granite seat.

But he soon recovered himself, slowly got up, looked hopelessly round at
the deserted bridge, and then walked with feeble, uncertain steps in the
direction of home.

The old Dutch clock upon the wall had given warning that it was about to
strike one; the fire was low, and the candle burned with a long snuff,
as Shadrach Pratt and his wife sat beside the fire silent and tearful.
There was an open Bible upon his lap, and he had been essaying to read,
but the print looked blurred and confused; his voice was husky; and more
than one tear had dropped upon the page where it said - "I will arise and
go to my father," and again where "his father fell upon his neck and
kissed him;" and there was sorrow that night in the humble home.

The candle burned down, quivered in the socket, and then went out; the
fire sank together again and again with a musical tinkle, and then
ceased to give forth its warmth; but through the two round holes in the
shutters the bright moonbeams shone, bathing the couple with their
light, as slowly they knelt down, and Shadrach repeated some words,
stopping long upon that impressive clause - "As we forgive them that


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 3 of 19)